My day begins with about 3 inches of fresh powder on Jenny Jeep. It brushes off quite easily, but the snow continues to fall over the next 7 hours.
Despite my hope for a morning full of Druids, there is no activity at Footbridge or the confluence, so I keep driving. Rick has stopped at Coyote so I join him and a few others already here. One thing I really like about being in the Park this early in the spring - you pretty much have the place to yourself.
We are looking northwest at Slough wolves on the skyline. They are hard to see through the falling snow, but they travel a route I have seen them take several times before, along the skyline above the tumbled basalt north of Fisherman's. We hear them howl, beautifully.
Then I hear a sort of strangled bleat from somewhere below in the flats. Something just got killed. An elk? A bison? Maybe a calf? From our vantage point we can't see what it is or what might have killed it. It's kind of spooky to hear such a thing in the dim light and falling snow. Shortly after this, several Slough wolves begin a determined descent to the road. Despite the presence of one car in their direct path (guess who?) at least two of them do make it across, which emboldens a few others who stopped about half-way down. The road-wary wolves: 380, Hook, 526 and several others, remain on the skyline, watching the others.
More Sloughs are seen coming down to cross. As each wolf crosses the road, its path takes it behind a hill as it makes its way to the flats. There is a small triangle of flat area visible so I can see each wolf reappear in this area. Just as I see the first one come out, someone call out "grizzly".
The grizzly is at the base of the hill below the next pullout to the east (Dorothy's). The snow falls harder, obscuring the view but I see a bear-shape moving up the slope, towards the pullout. Someone warns the people scoping from Dorothy's that the grizzly is heading their way but the bear quickly reverses direction and goes back down. Now I see him running across the flats toward the river, as if spooked by something. Well, of course! The Sloughs probably just arrived!
I remember the strangled sound and wonder if the bear killed something down there. Suddenly I see a lot of birds and look! Over there are three coyotes dashing east across the flats, spooked by the same thing that scared the bear.
Now I see 7 Slough wolves converge on that spot with high, excited tails. They may be feeding on whatever is left of what had drawn the other critters but they don't stay long. Perhaps it is something small. The wolves are out of sight again and the bear is across the river and heading up the bank toward Specimen. The coyotes are bark-howling and complaining. Now we have wolf howling from the north slope over my right shoulder. It's 380 and the others left on the hills. 380 does not like to cross the road when there is even one car around, and right now there are about a dozen. The other wolves with her agree.
I can't tell if the wolves in the flats howl back or not but soon we see them moving out across the flats. Now we can easily identify them as 630F (the gray), alpha male 590, beta male 629, 631F, and 3 black yearlings. The head to the river, determined to cross it. Their route is more westerly than the bear. He went toward Amethyst and they seem to be aiming for Jasper Bench.
The wolf leader picks a route over which to cross, but none of the others choose that spot. In fact, I find it fascinating to watch each one choose a unique place to cross the icy water. Unlike elk or bison who almost regimentally follow the leader, the wolves make their own choices.
One picks a deep section and has to swim a while before reaching an easy shallow part. Another chooses a two-part crossing, taking a short break on a snow-covered gravel bar. Another walks up river for quite a ways and eventually finds a spot he can hop across. Once all are safely on the other side, they begin to climb the steep face of Jasper Bench. It is heavily forested so we can only see them sporadically between the trees. They top out and some of them pause while others begin a tail-wagging greeting ritual as each one finishes the climb.
To the right, where the trees stop at the right edge of Jasper Bench, the land slopes down in a gentle diagonal and then back up again to form the highlands above Lamar Canyon. In this saddle, about half-way between its lowest point above the flats and the end of the trees, is a tightly-bunched herd of bull elk (all pedestal bulls - this year's antlers are just beginning and thickly velveted). As soon as I notice these elk, the wolves break into a run straight for them. They zoom down the snowy slope, tails high in excitement.
I think I am about to see a chase, but amazingly, the elk do not panic! They stay in a tight bunch, shifting position only slightly, to put their rumps in the center and their heads facing out. The seven wolves encircle them, romping and lunging. Any time a wolf makes a move toward one of the elk, it is met with formidable return lunge by the elk. The elk stomp fiercely towards the wolves, moving only far enough to make them flinch away. Then the elk tucks himself back into the group. I have NEVER seen elk do this. It is wonderful. Just like musk ox.
This goes on a few minutes, with the wolves continuing to circle back and forth, looking for an opening. But in very little time, the wolves clearly get the message that these elk are just not having it today and shockingly, the wolves take off and leave them alone.
The wolves head uphill to Divide Ridge and soon disappear over the top. The elk remain standing there for a while, as if not quite believing their own luck. I can just hear one guy in the group saying "I TOLD you that would work!"
This whole drama plays out through a snow-veil and sometimes the snow is blowing in our faces! So once the wolves top the ridge I am grateful that I can turn my head in a different direction! In fact after a while we decide to move over to Slough in the hopes that we can watch them with the wind at our back!
So on we go. I set up right in the upper lot and soon someone finds 380 up on the high ridge behind and to the right of Dave's Hill. She is trotting towards the den, carrying something in her mouth: it's stiff, like a bone or some frozen morsel. She caches it, then digs it up and caches it again a few yards away. Then a raven lands close to her cache-spot so she goes back to dig it up again. Then a second Slough wolf appears, following in her footsteps and also carrying something. The second wolf gives up his prize to 380. She takes it to another cache spot, starts to dig but then sits down to gnaw on it. Then she digs up something else and eats that!
The other Slough wolf continues to the den area. Just then the Sloughs are spotted on the high slope above Crystal so I turn around and reset Layla. On that wide, sloping hillside are several groups of ungulates: elk, pronghorn and bison; many with calves. The Sloughs come racing down the slope aiming for the bison calves.
But the bison are not having it either, today, and easily fend off the attack. Some of the Sloughs turn their attention to a group of elk which begin to run. But the snow is not as thick over here and the elk easily escape. While the elk are running, a herd of pronghorn takes off, although nothing is chasing them, and we laugh to see the fleet-footed antelope speed past both the wolves and the elk!
Three different Sloughs take aim at a group of four bison cows with three calves. If the other Sloughs had joined them, perhaps this might have been a successful hunt, but things are just not working for the Sloughs this morning. Honestly, they are not showing much skill at working together, and they go hungry as a result.
After a while, the seven wolves all so spread out on the slope it's no wonder they are not succeeding this morning. They begin to wander back up to the skyline, so we pack up and head back to Coyote. By the time I get back there, the snow is falling even more thickly and we are approching white out at the top of Specimen Ridge. We know there are some bison up there with calves and we do see a few wolf-shapes up there, continuing to try to separate the calves from their protective mothers. One bison cow wheels back and forth so frantically we are afraid she will trample her own calf, but she doesn't.
The wind picks up again, and between the poor visibility and the sting of icy snow in the face I decide to call it a morning. There are things to see in other parts of the valley that don't come at such a price! I head for the confluence but before I get there, I notice Laurie slowing down ahead of me. She pulls over at Mid-point and I soon find out why.
On the north side of the road is an eroded gully with a tree growing out of it, and in that gully is a carcass. A gray wolf is feeding on it. I learn from Laurie that 302, 480 and several other Druids were seen for a brief moment at this spot early this morning, in and out of the veil of snow. I stop and set up to watch. I see the wolf's back just above the edge of the gully, tugging at whatever is in there. It's in a hard spot to get at and any wolf eating on it will likely be constantly worried about being so vulnerable.
After a while this wolf gives up and walks up the hill and slightly to the east. It begins to dig at a spot on the hillside. Then I hear a great deal of howling, yipping and barking and soon see that two coyotes are on either side of this wolf, and quite obviously upset. The one on the right is yipping so forcefully that it hops in the air with each effort. The one on the right, though, is not just making noise. This one waits for his moment, then darts in and bites the wolf REALLY HARD on its butt. Ow! The wolf wheels and lunges at the coyote but of course the coyote expected that and is already 10 feet away. This little coyote is amazingly tenacious and mad as hell. He/she is relentless but also patient, waiting for the perfect moment to dash in for a bite. When this fiesty little critter connects, he REALLY connects and delivers a series of vicious bites to whatever he can reach, the wolf's tail, leg or flank. Several times I see fur fly and the wolf is annoyed enough to chase the coyote rather than just wheel and snarl. This treatment has an effect and the wolf eventually leaves the area, heading up the hill.
Oh coyotes! You just gotta love 'em.
Eventually we drive on and I see a curious thing. The carcass that had been lying high on the hill near the exclosure fence is now quite close to the road...and missing its antlers. There are clear human footprints in the snow near the remaining skeleton. Someone removed the antlers and I can only hope it was the NPS.
I take a break for lunch and a bit of a rest and then head back for more wildlife-watching fun.
I scope for goats on Barronette but do not find them. In truth, I don't try for very long. The wind is fierce up here, too! I stop again at the Footbridge and run into the cute couple I met at the beginning of this trip. They tell me they had so much fun last weekend they had to come back again.
We drive to Midpoint and I show them the gully carcass. And I'm glad I do because there is a wolf on it. A gray, but not the one I saw earlier. This one has a collar and it turns out to be 571F. A few other folks are here enjoying the sighting, including R. He tells me that wolves have been coming and going all day from this location.
I don't remember now why I decided to head west but it was a lucky impluse. I think I meant to go to Slough but ended up at Dorothy's instead. The Idaho couple stops, too. It's about 4:30 and it's finally stopped snowing but way too early for the "evening action" to start. Or so I think. I hear coyotes howling and putting up a fuss down in the flats. I always figure if a coyote is complaining, some other predator must be in the area so I start looking for them. I find three coyotes in the flats, slightly to the east. Then Hawaii says - hey Wendy, is that a wolf or a coyote? He is pointing to the gully at the bottom of the knoll, right where the flats begin, right where we saw the 7 Sloughs converge this morning.
I can barely believe my eyes. It's a wolf alright, in fact, it's 7 wolves, right smack in the same spot as this morning. I totally forgot that something edible was down there, making it a logical spot to scope if you want to see predators. I don't know where the Sloughs came from or how long they were there. I don't really know if it's the same 7 wolves, but they are Sloughs.
Anyway, I call in Hawaii's sighting and soon, R and Elli and A and various other folk show up to watch with us. I keep thinking to myself, it's too early for this! Hawaii and his wife are VERY happy!
So here I am having my deja vu moment when it gets even weirder because suddenly the wolves begin to cross the flats - just like they did this morning. They cross the river, and again I enjoy seeing each of them choose a different spot to cross. They reach the far side of the river, shake off and head straight up the steep face of Jasper Bench.
R looks up to the Bench to see what might be waiting for them on top and points out a group of elk toward the right side. It looks to me to be the same group of pedestal bulls they surrounded this morning. I keep checking the progress of the wolves as they climb the thickly timbered hill.
Now comes the moment when things diverge from the script they followed this morning. Three of the Sloughs have topped the bench but instead of pausing for breath from the climb, they immediately begin to run to the right. Fast. The next thing I see is a herd of about a dozen elk running ahead of them. The chase is on! Down the same gentle slope they run, and I am more convinced that this is the same group of pedestal bulls. But this time they run.
The wolves catch up to the herd in the blink of an eye and as fast as that, one of the bulls falls back and turns alone down to the flats (perhaps making for the river?) while the rest of the herd continues to run down the gentle diagonal. The wolves stay with the lone elk and quickly catch up to it. Contact is made and the elk goes down. While the bull is down, the slower wolves catch up and all seven converge. But the bull rises and moves forward, dragging the wolves for many agonizing steps. Then somehow he is free of them and moves out from them but they converge on him and stop him a second time. Again he moves forward, with seven wolves attached to him by their teeth. It is awful to watch so I step away from my scope and take a break. I give up on my scope and use binoculars - that's close enough. The elk moves more and more slowly and I see a blood trail in the snow behind him. I can't watch the rest. I say, tell me when it's over.
Finally, mercifully, the elk collapses and stops moving.
I have never seen a kill before. I've seen chases but the end always happened behind a hill or something. It is hard to watch because the elk tries so hard to live. It is amazing how strong the elk is. And how hard it is for the wolves. They have the advantage in numbers and the snow depth is in their favor as well. I wonder how they do it in milder weather. I keep thinking about this morning, when the elk stayed together. Why did they run?
I keep thinking how hard the wolves have to work for their meal. Yesterday they hunted unsuccessfully and we saw them hunting all morning with nothing going their way. But this time they worked as a team. And the elk ran. Man, it is an awesome thing to see.
I will always wonder what made the bulls stick together this morning, and what made them panic this afternoon?
While the Sloughs feed, I look back at the tale told by the tracks. I can clearly see the story of the chase, including the spot where the elk first went down. And the second spot, where the blood starts. The wolves are making good use of their time, gobbling up chunk after chunk.
Then I look over to the right, in the western part of the saddle. The survivor elk stand here, silently. While I remain here, watching the wolves on the carcass, I check frequently on these elk. There are exactly 12, making their fallen comrade unlucky 13. Eventually I see these elk make their way in a dirge-like procession straight across the bottom of Jasper Bench, single file, behind the wolves, and eventually follow a trail up the hill to the right of Amethyst drainage.
When Laurie & Rick arrive I learn the identities of these 7 wolves: 629M, 630F, 631F, the uncollared gray, two black yearlings, and, surprise, the Dark Female! Laurie says she is an excellent hunter. So now I wonder if perhaps she is the one who made the difference? R says it was a black who made first contact.
Hawaii and his wife cannot believe their luck at seeing this, and we are all moved by the drama of the chase and the death of the elk. The wolves come away one by one with bloody faces, and attempt to clean their muzzles by rubbing them in the snow. One by one they move off to bed down and digest.
Coyotes begin to arrive on the outskirts of the scene, calling to each other and preparing for the moment when they can take their turn at the table. And I find a bald eagle in a tree, watching from on high.
We hear howling again, coming from the north, and sure enough other Sloughs are soon seen on the skyline. I see three blacks up there for sure. I think it was 590 and Hook and one other black. I'm sure these wolves want to get across the road to the feast, but there are now lots of cars both at Coyote and here at Dorothy's so they will probably end up waiting until dark.
As the light begins to fade another visitor arrives at the carcass. A grizzly! For the last hour we have been half-expecting a bear to show up and there he finally is. I first see him coming over Amethyst Bench, nose in the air. He might be the same bear from this morning, but I don't know the individual bears of this valley. He makes good time and comes right into the carcass, scattering the ravens and pushing off the two Sloughs still feeding. The bedded wolves stand up and think about mounting a defense but they are probably too full to do so! So they relax and bed back down.
What an amazing day it's been. I expect this bear will stay on the carcass till morning so I pack up Layla and head east.
Whenever the day has been full like this we always think it's a good time to try heading in early and get extra sleep. But it never quite works out that way! Sure enough, when we get to mid-point we see a shadow moving at the gully carcass. We pull over and soon we are treated to the sight of none other than 302 scrounging for a meal in that awkward spot. He is extraordinarily cautious and eventually gives up and sits on the hill above the gully. We leave him in peace and head east.
I stop at Hitching Post and when I return to Jenny I see several cars facing west with scopes out. So I get one last sighting before the night comes - a lone black Druid has just crossed the road and is in the river bottom. We think he is hunting a beaver! Honestly, I can just barely make out the wolf and I never do see the beaver. Laurie says they heard a great splash.
She also tells me wonderful news that today W spotted pups at the Oxbow den from Hellroaring, the first wolf pups seen anywhere this year! Thus ends a wonderful day in Yellowstone.
Today I saw: antelope, 1 grizzly bear, bison (and bison calves), 8 coyotes, 2 sandhill cranes, ducks, 1 bald eagle, elk (including one brave bull who lost his life), geese, 1 red-tailed hawk, ravens, 15 wolves (11 Sloughs, 4 Druids), six wolfers and the spirit of Allison.